Remembering 'Captain N: The Game Master,' Nintendo's Ridiculous Eighties Cartoon

Remembering 'Captain N: The Game Master,' Nintendo's Ridiculous Eighties Cartoon

'Captain N: The Game Master' arrived in the late Eighties, when Nintendo was positioning itself as a multimedia empire. Shout! Factory

Back in the day, Nintendo had its own cartoon, and it was truly absurd

Back in the day, Nintendo had its own cartoon, and it was truly absurd

Captain N is still the raddest dude alive. He tucks his pale-blue jeans into crisp high-tops and quick-draws his light gun on every Eggplant Wizard and Castlevania ghoulie in his way. The scarlet Nintendo-branded letterman jacket and gamepad belt buckle are must-haves for every BoHo nerd-chic wannabe in Bushwick. He's the de facto prince of Videoland – a Technicolor fever dream that mashes together every classic 8-bit NES game on a single, chaotic landmass. It is a place where Dr. Wily and Motherbrain conspire together, where Planet Metroid hangs over Donkey Kong's imperial forest, where Simon Belmont competes in the olympics. From 1989 to 1991, video games got their first close-up on TV, and if we're being honest, nothing has really done it better.

Captain N: The Game Master arrived at a time when Nintendo was positioning itself as an aspiring multimedia empire. They dumped $50 million into the ill-fated, inexplicable Super Mario Bros. film adaptation, they debuted Super Mario Bros. 3 in the charmingly silly The Wizard, and pressed an egregious cartoon version The Legend of Zelda into national Saturday morning syndication. A few years later, after almost all of these projects failed, Nintendo retreated to their conservative roots. Apart from plans to open a theme park in 2020, the company has since largely steered clear of this sort of thing. While Microsoft pays Usher to wish us a Happy Easter and Ubisoft links Jake Gyllenhaal to future flops, Nintendo is doubling-down on an obtuse quasi-handheld with a solemn new Zelda title and no Netflix app.

Honestly, that's what makes Captain N so indelible. It is pure, 8-bit video game glee from a company at the peak of its powers. In the opening credits, young Kevin Keene gets sucked into Videoland by a transdimensional NES – a dream come true for every kid on earth. For 22 minutes, all those fanfic hallucinations came to life. You fought King Hippo with Mega Man at your side. You befriended an anthropomorphic Game Boy. You helped Link zap Ganon with a blink of a mirror shield. Captain N was the face of Nintendo mania, and it perfectly reciprocated the desires of 1990s youth.

"All of us were brand new to the industry. That [first] summer, a bunch of us got invited to a fan convention in San Jose, and that's when I started to realize 'oh wow, people are really digging this show, people are digging this culture,'" says Matt Hill, the voice actor who played Captain N. "I wasn't a video game player. I had tapped out after Pong. But meeting those fans, they were just crazy enthusiastic."

Hill's surprise is understandable when you remember just how many liberties Captain N took with its characters. Grown men and women were drafting scripts based on worlds rendered with 8-bit processing power. There is only so much drama you can inject into an inch-tall sprite of Kid Icarus. Watching the show often feels like Nintendo unloading a metric ton of its iconography on an unexpecting studio, and forcing them to fill in the gaps.

"We kind of created these characters. I mean, what's Dr. Wily going to sound like? I saw a big bushy mustache and thought, 'this guy should wheeze, I don't know,'" says Ian James Corlett, a career voice actor who's worked on Dragon Ball Z, My Little Pony, and, yes, Captain N as Mega Man's villainous Dr. Wily. "We made it up! Every toy back in those days had its own cartoon attached to it. It was a means to an end for the marketing company. It was way before games were revered the way they are now. We just sat down and wrote fun little stories so they could involve as many Nintendo characters as possible."

The waifish, white-haired vampire Alucard was re-imagined as a skateboarding doofus clinging to his father's glory. Simon Belmont was built as a vain, hulked-out weirdo with a massive chin and an incredible inferiority complex. Konami probably wouldn't be thrilled with the brazen disregard for Castlevania's trademark dourness today, but it worked back then. The kids were mostly just excited to see their favorite video game characters projected on a screen. It was legitimizing. Our hobby was invading other worlds. "Way back in 1989 and 1990, there hadn't been a massive crossover yet with video games," says Hill. "Back then it was just ABC, NBC, and CBS. It was such a moment of identification for gamers to have something they love represented by the mainstream media."

If NBC shrunk down Mass Effect's Commander Shepard into a kooky Saturday morning serial today, there would be riots in the streets. But for a brief moment, Ian James Corlett was allowed the opportunity to give life to a character that would soon evolve into one of the most iconic video game villains of all time. "When we were recording in those early days, there was no chance, and no thought, of ever even having a fan, " he says. "People didn't know who voiced anything. It was just in the ether. You walk around completely anonymous in every aspect of your life until someone asks you [if you voiced a character] and then you're Mr. Famous."

It's taken a long time for video games to be accepted as an ordinary part of American pop culture. Today, phones come pre-loaded with Candy Crush clones, but for many of us growing up, it was totally normal to be judged for loving games. Captain N may never be inducted into the Library of Congress, but it did make a generation of nerdy kids feel at home for a few minutes every weekend.

"There's a fan I've been in contact with for almost a decade now. A few years ago, I did this run around America called 'Run for One Planet.' He got in contact with me for that and was like 'oh my god, you're also the voice of my favorite cartoon character of all time!'" says Hill, towards the end of our conversation. "I've never met the guy, don't know if I ever will, but it's been amazing learning how much this show has impacted him. I believe that animation can change the world, and in this case, that video games can inspire people, and make people be better citizens. That's the gift of being part of this industry."